Is your teen in a relationship? And if so, is it a healthy relationship? In the age of texting and IM, it can be hard for parents to know when something is wrong.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found that a staggering 41% of teens experience cyber dating abuse – an umbrella term defined as “the use of technology to control, harass, threaten, or stalk another person in the context of a dating relationship.” Cyber dating abuse includes forms of sexual abuse – making unwanted advances, sharing intimate photographs and messages with outside parties, and coercing cyber sex. It also includes several forms of emotional, psychological, and verbal abuse, from demeaning and derogatory remarks to aggressive stalking and controlling behaviors.
Of those teens who had experienced cyber dating abuse, approximately 1/10 reported abuse of a sexual nature. Teens in this group were significantly more likely to also suffer cyber abuse of a non-sexual nature, and for young women, cyber abuse of a sexual nature also correlated with increased rates of contraceptive nonuse and non-consensual or coerced pregnancy.
Many parents of teens already have concerns about the amount of time their children spend texting significant others, and if you’re among them, you may be feeling as though your fears have been confirmed. But before you go to stage an intervention, it’s important to remember that texting around the clock isn’t necessarily a red flag – in fact, it’s considered socially normative by many high school students. The key identifier of cyber dating abuse is that involves coercion and/or psychological manipulation – so if your son or daughter seems happy to be texting that special someone, a high volume of texting probably doesn’t indicate abuse. If they seem discontented and dread receiving their partner’s texts and IMs, on the other hand, that is a more likely cause concern, though abuse is only one of several possible causes for such behavior. Other potential red flags include defensiveness about the partner’s behavior and loss of interest in activities and social events.
So do these scary statistics mean you should start monitoring your teen’s phone and computer immediately? Well, no, not necessarily – some adolescent psychologists believe that constant parental monitoring can actually be counterproductive. That’s not to say you shouldn’t intervene if you suspect abuse is going on, of course – but short of that situation, monitoring and confiscating devices may not be the best solution.
If not through strict supervision, then, how should you keep your teen from becoming part of that 41%? One important thing you can is to talk to them about it. Explain what cyber dating abuse is and how common it is. Make it clear that you won’t monitor their communications, and make it clear that you want them to feel comfortable coming to you if they ever feel that a partner’s behavior is inappropriate. As with any topic relating to dating or sex, set yourself up as a resource for your teen, a loving and supporting figure who can be confided in without fear of judgment. If your teen is willing to talk to you about cyber dating abuse and other sensitive topics, you will be in a much better position to help and protect them if anything happens.